Daydream Believers: A Saturday in Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights

The scenery heading north to Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights is both dramatic and serene, with giant lopping trees hanging over winding roads that run through country rich with volcanic rock, leaving the land slate gray amid the green. Every few feet, though, your eye catches a warning sign that the hills are alive with landmines, in terrain that makes it hard for Israelis to clear them out. Unlike in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war but did not annex, there is no movement to settle the Golan with a significant number of Israelis, aside from the scattered villages, moshavim, kibbutzim, and industry that already dot the landscape. Additionally, there are 20,000 Druze who lived (or descended from those who lived) on the land when it belonged to Syria and who still consider themselves citizens of Syria today.

The largest village, with half of the Golan’s Druze population, is Majdal Shams, at the foot of Mt. Hermon, Israel’s only ski resort. Since the Israelis annexed the Golan in 1981, the Syrian Druze have been eligible for Israeli citizenship, but most reject it and instead have permanent resident status and a laissez-passer for travel, with their citizenship line empty except for a line of stars. Unlike West Bank Palestinians, the Golan Druze are free to live, travel, work, and seek higher education anywhere in Israel. Yet more than these freedoms, the Druze want their land to return to Syria, even—and for some, especially—now. Two nearly identical statues in two squares in the center of Majdal Shams, which commemorate the Druze leaders from the village who led the 1925 revolution in Syria against the French, point to the town’s historical identification with Syria. (I was told by a resident that the second statue was sculpted because someone was left out of the first one.)

Entering the village on a Saturday, all the stores and cafés are open (the Druze don’t observe a Sabbath), and people are out and about even in the middle of the summer heat. A profoundly secular population, the standard outfit for young Druze women seems to be tight tank tops and jeans. In conversation, the younger Druze speak Hebrew with barely a trace of any Arabic or Syrian accent.

Majdal Shams was once famous for the “Shouting Wall,” a ravine divided by a wire security fence between Israel and Syria where family and friends used to stand to catch up on the local news from each side using megaphones. Cellphones and Skype have since replaced this iconic wall, but the yearning for news from home has not faded.

Even though Shefaa Abu Jabal is “100 percent aware that thanks to my education that I received here in Israel I can express my opinion more freely,” she keeps “wanting to come back” to Syria, as she told me at the Why bar and restaurant. (A favorite of both locals and tourists in town for skiing, Why’s previous name was the Undefined, mimicking the Golani Druze identification papers.) “I have this open space but this doesn’t cancel my feeling of belonging….Maybe if I lived in Syria I would feel different.”

Shefaa, who was born in Israel and has never visited Syria, just passed the Israeli bar after graduating from Haifa University Law School—the first Syrian Druze woman resident of Israel to graduate from an Israeli university. But she has little interest in practicing law in Israel. Instead, she sits at home working as an English language translator. More recently, she has become the organizer of the pro-revolutionary opponents of Assad in her village.

Every Friday, the twenty-six-year-old gathers about 100 people from the village, mostly educated professionals and an even mix of men and women, who hold signs in support of the revolution in Syria. They stand in a parking lot next to the Bank Hapoalim building (the only bank in town), space that the village elders have offered to them; requests for a better space to meet were rebuffed by the town’s Druze leadership, all of whom are strong supporters of Bashar Assad. “There is a big disease where people don’t realize that Syria is not just Assad,” Shefaa said. She and her fellow sign-holders have created an annoyance extending all the way to Damascus. Shefaa’s aunt, who lives in the Syrian capital, was called in by the security forces and told that her niece should “calm down.” She didn’t, and her family backs her up.

Shefaa is in a Facebook group of revolutionary activists in Syria itself, but communication can be difficult. “You don’t call on the phone and ask what’s going on there because you know, plus you know that they can’t tell you because they will get killed,” she said. Her worst moment was when a friend’s Facebook account was deactivated. “There is a rule among friends to let us know if your account is gone, but the worst time is when the account is deactivated and then you find out that someone has disappeared. We stop talking about the person, and you stop being emotional about things.”

I asked Shefaa what she wants to see happen, and her answer was vague. Even though she tells me that she has “a very clear idea,” the reality is that she doesn’t know what is to come—but knows that Assad offers no viable alternative. “For two, three generations, we have been under this regime. You have to teach people how to handle the post-Assad time,” and she is willing to take her chances. “I would not like to see the Muslim Brotherhood [rule]—not because I am anti-religious, but I see what happened in Tunisia and Egypt,” she said. “I would like to see them as part of the whole not the whole part. If you have a social motivation it can be more flexible, but if it is just religious it is not.”

Even under the current regime, Shefaa would like to see the Golan return to Syria, but she said that is “a dream. Assad was not going to take the Golan back because if he wants to have people leave you alone and not criticize what you do to your people…he just criticizes Israel. For him, it was a very good deal. Plus who cares about 20,000 people? But now they understand that even 200 people here” oppose the regime. “You cannot underestimate the importance of this thing.”

I have emailed several times with Shefaa since our meeting and her fervor for changing a country she has never known, but that lives deep in her heart, remains strong. “Syria is not a perfect place, but maybe this is an adventure of my life that makes it worth living. We can have this chance to rebuild Syria.” Her commitment to and desire for a homeland and a full democracy is breathtaking and admirable. Similar political struggles are playing themselves out all over the Arab world, in new forms that are without a clear map or ideology.

Upon leaving Shefaa I met with one of the shopkeepers in the main square. Hassan Faradeen, sixty-four years old, owns a butcher shop where he watches Syrian television all day. A former Arabic teacher, he is a pleasant, soft-spoken man, but he was concerned about speaking with me. He was recently interviewed by a TV crew from Israel that took advantage of the symbolism of him standing in his simple butcher shop with a meat grinder and heavy knifes all around, calling him a butcher not for his vocation but due to his political views. Narration over the segment proposed that “this is one of Assad’s people breaking bones.”

On Syrian TV, we watched the government parade its military and show what it claimed were attacks from Al Qaeda on the Syrian people. Hassan believes that Al Jazeera is full of lies, taking stock footage from elsewhere (including “an old Turkish movie”) and claiming it is from Syria. All those who consider Al Jazeera anti-American or anti-Israeli probably never thought of it as anti-Syrian, yet the freedom that its reporters have relative to the traditional media in the Arab world is stunning and therefore threatening to anyone in power.

“Syria is for all the peoples: Druze, Muslim, Christian,” Hassan told me. “Bashar Assad is a young man, educated and a doctor and I personally believe in what Assad said—that he will return the Golan and all the lands that Israel occupied. Assad is also a friend of Hezbollah and Iran and all of Palestine. France, England, Turkey are all against Assad but the Arab world is with him and he has power.” He believes that there is “no way that Assad is involved in the killings. These are extremist Muslims.” In his heart, he feels that he is Syrian. “The Druze and the moderate Muslims are together.”

Speaking with both Shefaa and Hassan illuminates the divide between new and old media. Hassan is not a man of the Facebook generation. It is also possible to evade reality on the internet, of course, or to create your own segmented reality, but the influence of online media on young Arabs is monumental, helping them get past the censorship of state dictatorships. Even a TV network like Al Jazeera employs a sophisticated iPad app, and its optics are made for a globally engaged Arab generation.

Education also plays a role in where people stand on the issue of Assad in Majdal Shams; those who have undergone higher education, whether at Syrian or Israeli universities, are much more likely to oppose the regime. Since the takeover of the Golan, the Israelis and Syrians have had an agreement where Druze students can study in Syria and return to the Golan afterward. Because the universities in Syria are free, a significant number of students have taken advantage of an education at Damascus University through the years. Many residents of Majdal Shams are very well-educated.

My last meeting in town was with several young men back at Why, including the owner of the café, who studied at Damascus University. Busher Abu Saleh, thirty-five years old, comes from one of the town’s most powerful and wealthy families. We sat with his nephew, a teenager, and several guys (including one with dreadlocks) who, along with Busher, are in a band that is popular not only in Majdal Shams but in the West Bank and other parts of the Arab world. The band, Hawa Dafi, had just returned from playing their eclectic blend of rock ‘n roll and more traditional Arab music at a festival in Ramallah, with their two female members playing electric guitar and on vocals.

Over beers, we talked about their aspirations and the special nature of this village, which has an alternative arts scene that could rival Brooklyn’s. On the walls of the café are powerful, large posters with anti-war messages drawn by Busher’s twenty-five-year-old sister who, having completed her social work degree, is planning to enter Bezalel, Israel’s premier arts academy. Behind us, a drum set and guitars are laid out for a concert to begin in a few hours.

“There is something unique about this place because of the isolation and occupation, said Busher. He credits the town’s location with much of its character: “a border on one side with land mines and Lebanon on the other,” along with “two settlements—Neve Ativ (the Israeli-owned and operated ski resort) and Nimrod (a moshav with just a handful of Israeli families) on land that my family owns with other families.” Neve Ativ used to close their gates, caging in the Druze, but the owners were eventually pressured to open the gate between the village and the resort.

“We are the Portland, Oregon of the Golan,” said Busher. “The most important thing is that there is variety of everything. People are not sheep, not afraid. There are lots of different scenes. There is a music scene like in any big city. You find traditional Arab music and a reggae scene with revolutionary lyrics, a punk rock scene.” Only a minority of people watch official government TV and “you can’t help but see what’s online,” he said. This likely holds truer for his social circle, which spends time on social media, than the town as a whole.

Still, the quality of life in Majdal Shams hasn’t changed his view of the occupation. “I don’t think that anything gives the occupation legitimacy,” Busher said. “The easier choice is comfortable….I am talking to you and drinking coffee and people are dying over there, but this is not my choice. I would be happy to be part of the revolution.” But Busher also has many Israeli friends. “There is a misconception that if you are against the occupation you are anti-Israel. The people are separate from the government. People don’t usually choose those things. It is in the interest of governments for us to hate each other. It is in the interests of governments to feed off of the people who believe in their tribe and their nationalism.”

Like Shefaa, Busher doesn’t know what will come next but he is willing to roll the dice. “What created the religious leaders was the vacuum…[but] that is going to get old soon. We are going to have to go through this. We can’t jump off the ladder; we have to go one step at a time.”

What’s extraordinary, in addition to the online network reaching from Damascus to Majdal Shams, is the desire of the Golani Druze to be part of Syria, and not the Israel they have known since 1967 and under which they have flourished. Each lives with his or her own dream of what Syria is or could become, and each feels a sense of connection with and belonging to the larger Arab world. Yet the notion of a Majdal Shams within Syrian territory seems farther away than ever. The Syrian revolution rages on with no clear leaders, and no endpoint in sight.

But the connection between young people in the Golan and Syrian revolutionaries is real. Just two weeks after I met with Shefaa, she emailed me to say that she had deactivated her Facebook page. She needed to “be out of the spotlight” for a while, and to protect her allies living under Assad.

Jo-Ann Mort, a Dissent editorial board member, writes often about Israel and the Arab world and is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategy firm that works in Israel, the United States, and Palestine.

Photo: Majdal Shams, by Syria Freedom, 2012, via Flickr creative commons

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